“The power of cartoons and caricatures shouldn’t be underestimated,” states writer Victor Navasky in his no-nonsense introduction to At War With War, Seymour Chwast’s comprehensive illustrated timeline of 5,000 years of war.
It’s a supremely fitting statement for this little yellow tome, which uses the power of stripped-back visual narration to demonstrate the abhorrence of killing and lament mankind’s historical, current, and likely future propensity for large-scale organised killing.
Chwast’s book runs with the subtitle “5,000 years of conquests, invasions, and terrorist attacks, an illustrated timeline,” and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. The designer has long used his graphics as a tool to promote peace and challenge the 'necessity' of war, and this is perhaps his most comprehensive distillation of that yet.
For a rather wee volume, a lot is packed in: alongside Chwast’s gorgeously emotive woodcut-like illustrations and the chronological timeline, At War With War presents written passages discussing war (and peace) including 5th century BC Chinese military treatise The Art of War by Sun Tzu; 1521’s The Complaint of Peace by Desiderius Erasmus; and The State, an essay on the link between state and war, by Randolph Bourne.
At War With War was initially launched as a Kickstarter last year, which proved the appetite for a considered visual exploration of war and terror (and, of course, another book by Chwast) when it raised well over its target – 784 backers pledged a whopping $112,754 to help realise the project. The video about the book that sat on the Kickstarter page is below.
“Seymour’s desire was to present his reaction to war in its purest form…” writes Steven Heller, who edited the book. “To set aside his interest in colour and mixed media and use what would allow him to focus on the idea alone: marker on paper; just black and white.
"His technique serves the content and the intention – to viscerally connect with the audience and bring front and centre the horror and waste that is war.”
In smallish, unassuming paperback form, the volume is a refreshing riposte to weighty, academic, frequently daunting tomes on war. Chwast presents atrocities in poignant, visual, bitesize chunks but makes them no more easily digestible.
As At War With War points out, there is “no happy ending to this book."